How can the 25th Anniversary Edition of the world’s most famous gaming icon claim to be so without the imperious Super Mario World or Yoshi’s Island?
HairyArse about Super Mario All-Stars 25th Anniversary
Journey of a Roach, from Swiss developers Koboldgames, is a point-and-click adventure starring two roaches exploring a post-apocalyptic world inhabited only by various mutated animals. You play as roach Jim on his quest to make it out of the underground nuclear bunker he calls home, as he dreams of the flora at the surface. You are joined by roach Bud, whose constant damselling-in-distress keeps you busy along the way.
The series-of-unfortunate-events storyline is presented through motion comic cutscenes, featuring a clean and cartoonish art style, but bare bones animation. Thankfully, for a game involving mutated insects, the visual style has a pleasant cutesy feel, rather than anything too grotesque. Within the game itself, the cartoonish look is maintained with strong outlines and a vibrant high-contrast colour palette.
You directly control Jim as he navigates rooms in the underground bunker, with the ability to continue walking up walls and across the ceiling. Confusingly, this applies only to walls on the left and right of the screen, and for whatever reason the wall facing the screen is off limits. The wall-climbing mechanic is quite interesting, as it makes you scour the environment from multiple perspectives, and offers some inventive navigational tricks. The game world is a series of interconnected locations, with discrete levels formed from sets of rooms. In addition to the initial tutorial, there are four levels in all, with linear progression from one level to the next.
Gameplay is your typical routine of scavenging for items in the environment, and then using those items with each other and with the environment in order to solve puzzles and progress. Puzzles vary from straightforward to obtuse, and there's a few red herrings (intentional or not) scattered along the way.
Items that you can pick up are clearly marked by white indicators, so there is no need to finely comb through the environment looking for loot. Hotspots in the environment are also clearly defined (the pointer becomes a puzzle-piece when you hover over them). So even if the way ahead seems unclear, it should be possible to clear most puzzles by a brute force pick-up-every-item-try-every-item method. There are no game overs and nothing in the environment can actually hurt you, leaving you to play the game at leisure.
The initial puzzles are simple enough. Your buddy ends up stuck to a spider-web, and from the room you scavenge a plunger, a stick, and some tape. Even if you initially simply try using the plunger on your friend, the game makes it obvious that you should combine the plunger and the stick, and then use the tape to secure them, in order to make the plunger long enough to reach its target.
All communication within the game is wordless, with characters speaking only through picture-filled speech bubbles. It's a charming method of delivering dialogue without resorting to corny lines. Without words to fall back on, the humour in the game is mainly of the slapstick and sight-gag variety. This also saves the game from being too obvious with hints: instead of saying “If I pick this up, it's going to hurt”, the game shows your character thinking of picking up a cactus.
The puzzles soon grow in complexity, with multiple rooms per level meaning items found in one place might not necessarily serve a purpose right there. While this is good, not all the puzzles in the game are completely intuitive.
One issue crops up in an early level, in which you must return hyperactive baby fleas to their cots. The room is scattered with items, which of course you pick up. But their use is unclear. There are a bunch of toys you can pick up, but try as you might to use them within the environment, they seem to serve no purpose. It's not until a further part of the room becomes accessible that their use becomes apparent: they must be placed correctly inside the combination lock of a safe in order to open it. To be given so many items that are essentially useless until they serve an obscure purpose later on is slightly frustrating. The feeling lessens as the levels become more complex in structure, because at least then there's the feeling that your items may serve a purpose in a far-off room – but in this initial level, it feels like a bait-and-switch.
Another example involves a sewing machine, a broken net, a spool of yarn and a nail. The game will indicate to you that the sewing machine is broken, missing its needle and thread. You can use the nail to replace the needle, but try as you might, the spool of yarn does not combine with the machine. Meanwhile, the broken net is ineffective at capturing the flea, as the flea naturally just falls right through it. The apparent solution, then, would be to fix the net with the sewing machine. There is no other use for the sewing machine at all. However, if you try to combine the yarn directly with the broken net, the net gets fixed, sans-sewing machine. This leaves you with a mystery sewing machine with no apparent use, and now no thread. Once you capture the flea with the fixed net, and return the flea to its cot, a new item appears: a sealed tin of food. Finally, it becomes evident that the sewing machine is for opening this newly unveiled item... but up till this point it is just sitting there, taunting you as a useless red herring. Perhaps this is intentional, but it really just seems like another “THAT'S what that was for?!” moment that make it feel as though the game isn't rewarding your intelligence.
The rest of the game didn't trip me up too much. There are some solutions that certainly seem obscure at the time, though they make sense in retrospect. There's an RC car that you can control to distract a certain character: but it's not distracting enough until you realise it requires a certain modification. Is that requirement telegraphed sufficiently? Players may differ on this depending on their puzzle-solving thought process.
The game itself is short (the four levels could easily be finished in a single sitting, certainly in two), and the story is rather lightweight. That's not to say you don't end up caring for your two roaches – their characters certainly shine through, despite the brevity of their screentime. But it does seem like there's so much about the game world and its characters that could have been further explored. This is especially true of the underdeveloped antagonists, and the plot itself, which rapidly ramps up the levels of absurdity at the end in order to provide a dramatic climactic struggle which seems rushed and out of the blue.
Journey of a Roach certainly has an endearing vibe to it, with its pleasant visuals and atmosphere. The tone is safe and family-friendly, and the humour doesn't exactly push the envelope. Certainly for a game that doesn't set out to be a deep, heavy game, it does what it sets out to do well enough. It's a nice way to pass an afternoon, but don't expect a lengthy or substantial game for your ~£10.